Sunday, 7 April 2013

The demolition of the White Bear: local history in the hands of our Tory councillors

The White Bear, in happier times

Once upon a time in Broken Barnet, when we had a history to be proud of, and not one to be valued, boxed up and sent off to auction, our council had a Heritage Officer, whose job it was to protect the listed buildings and conservation areas of our borough, and to inspect older properties that became the subject of planning applications, to recommend whether or not the development should be allowed.

Unfortunately - and Mrs Angry knows this because he happened to be a close friend of hers - the last Heritage Officer loved his job so much, and did it so well, it became something of a source of irritation in some quarters, and guess what: the Heritage Officer's job was deleted, and he was obliged to leave the London Borough of Broken Barnet.

The result, of course, has been greatly to the detriment of the built heritage of Broken Barnet, whereas developers have undoubtedly benefited from the absence of a properly informed  challenge to proposals which would obstruct the demolition, or inappropriate use, of some of our historically significant properties.

On Tuesday evening, there will be a planning meeting at Hendon Town Hall to consider two applications regarding the development of a property just a very short stroll across the road in the Burroughs: an 'empty' property once known as 'The White Bear'.

The White Bear is - or was - a lovely pub, which in its present incarnation dates from the 1930s, but has been present on the same site since at least the mid-eighteenth century, and very probably long before then. A Bear field is noted in documents dating from the fifteen hundreds. The original inn was important because the Court Leet used to be held there, until the mid nineteenth century, when it decamped to the rival Greyhound Inn next to the Church (the venue of many post meeting meetings for the Barnet blogosphere) and next to our former Church Farmhouse Museum, ransacked and put up for sale by our Tory councillors.

The leading expert on 'Tudoresque' architecture has commended the White Bear as an example of its kind, and it is most certainly a fine building in a recognised tradition which relates directly to a wider architectural context within the history of the Burroughs, with its Town Hall, library, university, churches and other structures from the thirties, sitting happily with the older properties in this historic part of Hendon.

decline and fall: the neglected building

The Town Hall is a listed building, thanks to an application by Mrs Angry's Heritage Officer friend, something else which did not go down awfully well with his employers, as of course this limited the resale value of what otherwise might make a lovely block of flats, or perhaps a free school ... listed on its own merits, but also as an integral part of a conservation area. 

The Burroughs is in fact an historic settlement - Roman pottery, tile and bricks have been found near the present University, and medieval pottery and stake holes suggesting wattle fencing found right opposite the White Bear in the 1970s. The dominant era of this area is Georgian, with several remaining early Georgian properties, but there is also a substantial and contiguous number of thirties buildings - the period of suburban expansion of Hendon - of which the White Bear is an important example.

The council decided several years ago to move most of its functions from the Town Hall to North London Business Park, a large property owned by the Comer Brothers, who developed Princess Park Manor from the former Colney Hatch Asylum. This move sounded the death knell for The White Bear, as the majority of its clientele were taken off to the enforced sobriety of New Southgate. The pub closed, and a small scale restaurant took over for a while. When that closed, the real problems began.

Over the last couple of years, the property has deteriorated, been neglected and left to fall into disrepair, with a second hand car sales business carried on in front of the building, despite protests from neighbours to the council. Predictably, once a site visit was imminent last week, an attempt to hide the mess surrounding the property ensued, as Mrs Angry noted on her visit, seeing the remaining rubbish shoved around the back, and finding a hastily painted fence still sticky with lurid red paint.

hastily moved rubbish behind the White Bear

An application, or rather two applications have been submitted to the planning committee by the small company which owns the White Bear, which seeks to demolish this lovely building, and build - yes - a block of flats, in a style completely incongruous with the adjoining terrace of Georgian cottages, or the houses across the road, or any of the other properties from the thirties, such as the apartment block and a Methodist church, let alone the municipal buildings. 

Mrs Angry, caught red handed: 

This frankly bonkers application, or rather the two varying applications, are breathtaking in terms of scope and delusional aspirations for such a modest site, and in this location: nine luxury flats, with an underground car park requiring space for an astonishing fourteen cars, or alternatively an underground car park with a swimming pool, a gym, and a gym reception area. 

Of course at this stage it is not necessary to have a full assessment by a structural engineer as to the possibility of such a development. What the plans appear to overlook is the existence of underground streams and indeed the original Burroughs pond, and the fact that nearby developments have been unable to sink deep foundations due to these local factors. The residents of the neighbouring Georgian houses, which have very shallow foundations, are hugely worried about the effect of any such monstrous excavations on their fragile properties, and rightly so. Of course the developers have paid for a cursory commercial assessment of the effects of the development, which appears not to address this point, but no independent archaeological study has been made.

To the astonishment and horror of local residents, moreover, it seems that certain senior officers within the planning department are determined to support this application, for reasons known only unto themselves, and will instruct our Tory councillors to approve the demolition and development.

Rather amusingly, the plans submitted to committee are said to include illustrations that avoid the historic context of the conservation area, and concentrate on a more modern building in the background, describing the site, quite ludicrously, as 'between Raffles House and shops'  ... rather like, as one resident commented, saying the Town Hall is placed between a housing estate and a noodle bar ...

There is absolutely no justification for the demolition of this historic property. There are many uses which are far more suitable than yet another development of very expensive flats. The building would make an excellent location for a bistro pub of the type that has proved so successful with the Adam & Eve in Mill Hill village, for example, or even the Antic Bohemia in Finchley Central. This would bring enhance the area, create jobs, and boost the local economy.

Will these proposed new flats deliver any of the desperately needed affordable housing to our borough? They will not. Will they enhance the area, create jobs, or boost the local economy? They will not. Will they be an appropriate addition to a sensitive conservation area? No. Would they deliver a handsome profit to the owners of the property which has been allowed to deteriorate to this condition? Yes, most certainly. Will our Tory councillors follow their usual policy of turning their back on the heritage of our borough and put profit before history? Let's see, shall we?

*Updated Tuesday evening:

A happy postscript: at the planning meeting, after the great efforts made by campaigning local residents, the committee refused permission for the application on conservation grounds. The White Bear lives on: for now, at least.


baarnett said...

If an owner knows a planning authority is "likely" to approve a block of flats, they are not going to market an existing building at all, since the potential land value is so much greater.

At other locations, holes in roofs co-incidentally appear, to help things along.

Auger-drilling, to allow deep piling, can be there and away again in a few days, so is unlikely to be a problem for planning permission.

Luckily, the Northern Line tunnel seems far enough away that they won't accidentally penetrate it, as happened in east London a few weeks ago.

Mrs Angry said...

It is not the process of drilling that is the problem, baarnett: it is, as in most things in Broken Barnet, what lies beneath ...